After the critical success of the technologically obsessed OK Computer, Radiohead shied from the limelight. Sequestered in a studio, the band birthed a heated debate akin to Bob Dylan's going electric. Will Radiohead's progression from controlled prog-rock to even more highly scrutinized post-rock affect recording practices, and will the guitar-slinging Radiohead of old will return on album or disappear completely?
"Musically, I really don't like the last two albums," admits Ben Allen, a ProTools engineer originally from Athens who recently opened up his own space, Nada Music, within Nickel & Dime Studios. While living in New York, Allen worked on records by Puff Daddy, the Notorious B.I.G., the Pharcyde and others, though he grew up playing guitar and has a performing electronica band, the Disastronauts.
"Some of the decisions Radiohead are making a seasoned producer would never make. Name three songs on Kid A or Amnesiac where you can understand what Thom Yorke is saying. There's so much technology; they are so fascinated by that, there is nothing that reaches out and touches you on a human level. Radiohead are doing what sounds like maverick electronica, and it's being seen as cool because it's Radiohead, not because it's necessarily good. There are tons of artists out there who have been making better electronica for the last 10 years."
Conal Byrne, vocalist of local band Adom, which has analog and digital experience, says, "My general feeling is that it's almost ironic that Radiohead are doing what they are doing, because a lot of Radiohead's message as I get it is about disillusionment, disenchantment and alienation because of the world getting more machine-oriented and computerized. And it's weird that in pushing that message, they're sounding more and more computerized and technological. And no one's having any fun. It's very depressing music."
Allen theorizes that Radiohead are reacting to bands, including Coldplay, Travis and Palo Alto, that resemble a more radio-friendly Radiohead era, while Byrne considers Radiohead's evolution completely unintentional. But regardless of whether Radiohead are getting something out of their system or introducing something to it, they haven't so much destroyed as they've digitally deconstructed each element of their sound. If it doesn't please everyone, it at least impresses some.
Even if he isn't rushing to play Kid A or Amnesiac regularly, Allen can appreciate the effort that went into them, especially the use of recording software ProTools. An expensive digital recording workstation originally developed for soundtrack work, ProTools allows precise editing to the millisecond.
"On a technical level, what they're doing is really cool," Allen says, "because everything you hear on the radio uses ProTools as an arranging tool. Where if there's a bad performance, if you have a weak or out-of-tune vocal, you can fix it. Radiohead have used that technology creatively to bend, warp and tweak sounds to make them unidentifiable. They are using it as an instrument."
Atlanta's Richard Devine -- an internationally recognized experimental electronic artist who also designs sound modules for German software companies -- agrees that Radiohead have started to view ProTools, Akai samplers and such as integral parts of their sound, an approach well-known to fans of the quasi-genre called intelligent dance music, or IDM. "Radiohead did something different and darker, something ambient, with almost IDM-style percussion. I think it's interesting that they picked this avenue instead of the typical [processed] indie-rock route that is the Stereolab/High Llamas/Jim O'Rourke/Tortoise sound, which leans more towards a jazzy, vibey sound.
"I've always seen Radiohead as the new Smiths of today -- that depressed, melancholy vibe," continues Devine. "But I think they're just branching out to their electronic neighbors because it's hard not to over there [in the U.K.]. There are almost more electronic records sold there than in all of the U.S."
The most probable reason Radiohead went toward electronica -- and the reason American fans are split so severely on it -- is Radiohead very British evolution, wholly different from America's rock-centric traditionalism. To Europeans, Radiohead's direction appears acceptably forward-looking, while Americans may see the group as an anomaly.
With Radiohead's maverick electronica popping in at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, the band is indeed an anomaly stateside. As such, Radiohead's genetic sound experiment has the potential to introduce tools to a wider audience with which to make fevered dreams reality. Just like the way people scooped up old Roland gear and turntables in the wake of the 1997 success of artists like the Chemical Brothers and the Crystal Method.
"I can definitely see kids converting [from analog to digital] like in L.A., where there is a huge scene of kids moving from shoegazer music to computer," Devine says. "They're seeing this as the sound of today. When I was younger, it was Skinny Puppy and Coil and Frontline Assembly. It doesn't leave the rock realm completely, but still has an element of electronic in it."
While Allen admits, "The number of musicians hopping on digital audio workstations is multiplying exponentially," he says, "Radiohead didn't start it." ProTools users and laptop punks have steadily gained notoriety the past five years. Allen sees Radiohead's approach as another isolated pool of talent where artists dip their toes in but don't stay for long.
"Remember in the '80s when artists got drum machines and stopped using drummers on their albums?" Allen says. "They were still making great pop songs, but you listen to it now and you're like, 'What the hell is that?' We're going to look back and ask what we were thinking, because I believe there is going to be a backlash against music created by technicians."
Backlash against technicians and Radiohead aside, Allen thinks the band's next album will counteract any negative feelings fans might have after the electronic one-two of Kid A and Amnesiac. "Radiohead had never done electronica, so they started doing it. It's like turning on a faucet that hasn't been turned on in 10 years. All the water that comes out at first is rusty and dirty, but once the water is going, it's fine. Now that they've gone through the process, what you'll hopefully see with the next album is an amalgamation of OK Computer and Kid A in the best way, where they'll be writing songs not just making beats."
If lyrics to Radiohead's "I Might Be Wrong" are any indication, though, the band has no plans to stop reaching for the faucet. And they invite you to follow: "Open up, begin again/Let's go down the waterfall/Think about the good times and/Never look back."